FOI request: Minutes from BBC Governor’s meetings post-Hutton

I made a request to the BBC for all minutes from meetings held by the BBC Board of Governors during the time period January 16-31, 2004. This was the period after the Hutton report when the chairman, Gavin Davis and Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, resigned.

Read the full BBC response here:
http://www.yrtk.org/wp-content/20050406_bbc_minutes.pdf (46k)

The BBC states there were two meetings during this time: one on 28 January and another informal meeting on the 29th. The second meeting was not minuted. The BBC cites section 36 (prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs) as reason to withhold the minutes from the 28th.

Section 36 is the ‘catch-all’ exemption that authorities pick when they are desperate. During the House of Lords debate on the FOIA, Lord Mackay summed up the exemption’s sole purpose: ‘Obviously the draftsman decided, just in case something escaped and there is one last fish in the sea, let us get it with a grenade; and this is the grenade.’

Section 36 is a qualified exemption, meaning information can only be withheld when it is in the public interest. The default position in such a balance is for openness, so a public authority must show how secrecy overrides the need for transparency. The BBC makes the claim that if the minutes were made public it would hinder discussion in future meetings and possibly hinder minute taking.

The belief that open meetings hinder vigorous debate is bogus. Secrecy in no way promotes good decision-making, in fact just the opposite. In secrecy, people can make decisions based on nothing more than personal prejudice, unsubstantiated opinion, favouritism or political gain. Good decision-making, like good policy making, must be based on reason that can stand up to public scrutiny. If it cannot, then the decision or policy was rubbish to start with.

The BBC was dealt a major blow by the Governors’ decision to accept offers of resignation from Davis and Dyke. Some would say, the BBC was irreparably weakened by the loss of its top two champions. Would we be seeing such massive cuts in staff if these two were still in power? The governors actions set the ball rolling on what could be the destruction of the BBC. It is imperative that the public know why the governors acted as they did. If the governors are so afraid to stand up and explain their actions to the public, one can only assume they know something we don’t — that their reasoning will not stand up to public scrutiny.

I will be making this argument in my appeal to the Information Commissioner.

What of the lack of minutes from the meeting on the 29th? Firstly, it is wrong to blame FOI for the culture of not taking minutes during controversial meetings. I was watching an old ‘Yes Minister’ episode from the early 1980s, and Sir Humphrey was expounding on this very topic. The problem with such opaque decision-making is that the public have no way of knowing how decisions came about. Minutes are the audit trail that show why decisions are made. Without minutes, a public authority lays itself open to accusations of dodgy dealing and corruption.

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3 Responses to “FOI request: Minutes from BBC Governor’s meetings post-Hutton”

  1. Phillip Bradshaw says:

    Section 36 is a cop-out if used like this. It should never be used as a blanket exemption for minutes for the reasons you set out.

    There may be some specific things in the minutes which could legitimately attract the argument that if made public it would hinder discussion in future meetings but that is a case for redaction, not a refusal to disclose any minutes at all.

  2. john greig says:

    Why the hell are the Governors having ‘informal’ unminuted meetings for?

    Were expenses claimed for this meeting?

  3. Graham Edridge says:

    It’s pedantic, I know,and probably won’t make any difference, but Mr Gray’s response refers to S36(2)(b)(11) “……PREJUDICE the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”, whereas the Act actually says “…INHIBIT the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”. The two have completely different meanings, and the response did not acurately describe the exemption contained in the Act.

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